This is an excerpt from Rpbert Bringhurst's book 'The Elements of Typographic Style' to explain what is meant by widows and orphans in freelance copywriter Caroline Gibson's blog about the dying craft of typography in advertising

Typography In Advertising: Is The Craft Dead Or Alive?

What’s happened to typography in advertising?
(In other words, why are there so many widows and orphans these days?)

Once upon a time, there were typographers in ad agencies; now there are heads of design. Once upon a time, art directors would visit typesetting houses and pore over metal type; now everything is done digitally. Once upon a time, copywriters would be asked by art directors to add a few words to copy or edit them out to avoid ugly gaps; now there are lazy widows and lonely orphans everywhere.

Image showing difference between an orphan and a widow in typography

As a freelance copywriter, I get really, really frustrated by this last point and what’s happened to the art of typography in advertising. But am I – and Robert Bringhust (read the above) – alone?

So, what’s going on with print advertising?

Russell Wailes, Creative Director at Libertine London, believes print advertising has been completely devalued, ‘Everything’s changed – print today is completely different from 15 years ago. When was last time you saw a long copy ad – probably in the days of Tony Brignull, Tim Delaney and David Abbot?’

Is this because copywriters have lost the skill to write long copy – or because they simply don’t need to?

We live in a world of short and snappy communication. Copy is now often referred to as content and appears in all kinds of places and on all kinds of platforms, which tends to mean fewer words are needed. Viewers are engaged by video and interactive content. The world has changed – and so have our brains. Long copy is no longer required so crafting it – and using the craft of typography in advertising to pay attention to widows and kerning and leading – is also no longer required.

Can you imagine the hours that went into creating this 1994 ad by TBWA/Chiat Day?

This is an ad for Absolute Vodka which cleverly has typeset letters flying away as they are magnetised to the vodka bottle as an example of excellent typography in advertising in freelance advertising copywriter Caroline Gibson's blog about typography and whether it is a dying skill in advertising

Has technology changed everything?

Annie Rushton, graphic designer and owner of Rushton Design (and such a huge type fan that that her children’s middle names are fonts) adds ‘It’s become too easy for people to manipulate type due to the fact that everyone has access to it on their computer, with Word, Pages and ready templates.’

Karl French, co-director of Metallic Elephant agrees, ‘When I first started, people would cut out pieces of paper and we would have to photograph everything. Now you take it for granted that you can go on the Internet, get a font and get something from Illustrator – job done! There’s so much free software around that everyone is a typographer or designer these days.’

Annie maintains, ‘Without a typographer’s eye, things can look messy and unbalanced. You may have to compromise on a leading or column width just to get extra text in.’

Recent proof of just how wrong things can go was evident in the 89th Oscars’ awards card fiasco, which might have been avoided had someone carefully considered changing the sizing, positioning and weight of the text.

This is a photo of letters used in printing in freelance copywriter Caroline Gibson's blog about typography as a lost craft in advertising

However, Andy Breese,Head of Art & Design at Publicis London, takes this view, ‘The introduction of the Apple Mac undeniably made type generation more accessible to the masses. And, in the stampede to embrace the new technology, some of the stuff that we had previously cherished got trampled. But really the autonomy and egalitarianism it gave everyone should be championed rather than lauded.’

He continues, ‘It gave people the ability to rapidly create something in an arena that had previously been rather lumpen, introspective and time consuming. It was very punk-rock in many ways. It allowed a whole roster of type pioneers to throw away the rulebook. Neville Brody, Swifty, David Carson, Jonathan Barnbrook, Ed Fella and many others seemed to relish shaking off the shackles and creating something genuinely fresh and exciting. The ripples of this creative explosion can still be felt today. I can only imagine it was a similar sensation to when dear old Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press back in 1440.’

Where is all the talent?

Ok, so there’s never been more fonts or more design tools than ever … but whether or not people have the talent to make the most of these is another thing. Russell adds, ‘People are being a lot more adventurous today – you could always spot a David Abbott ad because it always had 2 to 4 columns of type and a headline that ran across. However, adventurous doesn’t necessarily mean good.’ He believes there is some fantastic stuff all over the place – you just don’t see it in mainstream advertising.

Andy is of a similar view, ‘There is a massive contradiction at stake currently regarding typography. The use of type as an expressive media is arguably in a golden period and has never been stronger. However, in contrast, the craft of the typesetter has undeniably been eradicated in a rather Orwellian fashion!’

Luckily, some typography geniuses in advertising are still valued by art directors and designers and still going strong, such as Andy Dymock (work below) and Pete Mould.

This is an ad with stunning typography by master advertising typographer Andy Dymock in freelance copywriter Caroline Gibson's blog about typography in advertising and whether it is a lost skill

And, just as fortuitous, hand lettering done really well, such as by lettering artist Alison Carmichael,  will never be replicated by computer.

I’m going to leave the last word on typography in advertising to Andy with this positive point of view, ‘Whilst some of us will always obsess over a column of alternating short and long copy lines set at a decent measure, I suspect we have actually gained more than we have lost and the world of typography is probably a richer place for it.’

My thanks
Huge thanks to the following people I interviewed for this blog on typography in advertising:

Andy Breese (favourite font = Neil Bold: ‘I have a guilty pleasure for fonts that lack elegance and might even be considered brutish’)

Annie Rushton (favourite font = Helvetica Neue: ‘it’s usable, adaptable, elegant and clean’)

Russell Wailes (favourite font = Gill Sans: ‘an absolute classic with a little twist that makes it really stylish’)

Karl French (favourite font = Bewitched: ‘really smart on greeting cards’)

Good typography resources
Interested in learning more about the art of typography and seeing some amazing examples (sadly, not necessarily in advertising)? Check out these resources:

We Love Typography

Incredible Types

Type Everything

Friends Of Type


Written by Caroline Gibson, freelance copywriter who will gladly kill any widow and save any orphan. You just have to ask.

E: T: +44) (0) 7957 567766

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One thought on “Typography In Advertising: Is The Craft Dead Or Alive?

  1. Avatar für andy breeseandy breese

    Hi Caroline. I have given this some additional thought – which I hope you don’t mind me sharing.

    I think it’s important for us not to bemoan the demise of what we perceive to be good typography too much.

    I do find it slightly sad that some of the core skill has gone out of typography. Because like any craft once it has been lost, it is gone forever. I think there is a pervading attitude exacerbated by people’s use of search engines for information that if you can’t ‘Google it’ then it never existed in the first place anyway (hence my reference to Orwells’ 1984).

    As a point in question, I recently discussed with a colleague that ST (cap S/cap T) might actually be the correct abbreviation for Saint and that St (cap S/ lower case t) is the abbreviation for Street. I went on to mention that this arcane piece of shortening had probably been dropped because of where the abbreviated word falls in conjunction to other words (ie ST Pancras vs. Liverpool St). The Google search was inconclusive!

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